Everyone remembers their first trip to Paris.
Mine was in August of 2019, just a few months before the COVID sky started to fall. And for me, the city was magical. Yes, that’s such a cliche, and yes, we were there in the heat of summer and height of the tourist season. But Paris was everything I’d always dreamed it to be: mysterious, steeped in the history of centuries, filled with art and culture. In other words, pure magic.
With vaccination beginning to spread, we’re daring to hope there might soon be an end to this terrible pandemic. We’re as anxious as ever to get back to our traveling lifestyle, but we’re also wondering if travel will ever be the same – at least, the free and carefree travel we had so taken for granted before. Until we get to find out first-hand, we’ll keep reminiscing about some of our favorite journeys from the past.
Here’s our blog post of Paris memories from that trip, dusted off a bit. (As usual, many of our photos are in galleries – just click through to see bigger versions.)
Four Days in Paris
These are the parameters: You have five sleeps and four full days in Paris. One of you has been before, but it was almost 20 years ago. The other has never been and has a significant (ahem) birthday to celebrate. And the birthday person is as wide-eyed as any Paris newbie can be and wants to hit all the major tourist spots. A tall order, right?
Here are our Paris memories from August 2019. Of course we couldn’t do everything, but we had a marvelous time even without our luggage (that’s a whole other story!). Best of all, we know we’ll be back. And with some of the more overcrowded touristy things out of the way, we’ll have time to dig in deeper at some of our favorite sites (hello, Louvre) and get away from the beaten path.
Here’s our must-do list for Paris if you only have a few days.
1. Get a Paris Pass.
This will save you lots of time by giving you fast-track access to the most-visited tourist attractions and also unlimited access to the Metro and other public transit.
2. Ride the hop-on, hop-off bus on your first day.
These open-air, double-decker buses might seem a little cheesy, but they’re a great way to get oriented and learn about sites you’ll want to return to later on your own. There are a few operators, but we chose Big Bus Tours. A single-day ticket includes unlimited ons and offs for two routes and is included in the Paris Pass. After hopping off for lunch, spending time at the Arc de Triomphe (included in the Paris Pass), and visiting a couple of other quick sites, we spent a good part of our first day on the bus.
Day 1 Photo Highlights
3. Visit the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay.
Paris is a city of museums, but if you have only a few days, these two should be at the top of your list. Also, know that each is worthy of several days on its own, so give yourself permission to choose one or the other. We wanted to hit both, with the idea that we’ll be back someday to spend more time. And it’s a good thing, too, since we spent about four hours at each museum and barely skimmed the surface. In fact, we never really got out of the ancient Greek statuary in the Louvre (it was just TOO fantastic to breeze through!). Check their opening days, since, at this writing, the Orsay is closed on Monday and the Louvre is closed on Tuesday.
A few more notes about the Louvre:
- We made sure to be there right at opening and got lucky – there was virtually no line at the main entrance to go through the metal detectors. (This line – the one at the famous I.M. Pei pyramid – can be insanely long at times). From there, we were able to walk right in with our Paris Passes.
- Our bike tour guide showed us a “secret” entrance that few people know about. Of course, this was the day AFTER we visited the Louvre! (But it will come in handy next time.) Look for the entrance down to the underground shopping mall, Le Carrousel du Louvre, near the Arch de Triomphe du Carrousel. (Don’t confuse this with the bigger and much more famous Arch, several blocks to the northwest). Once you’re down the escalators, walk past the shops and the famous “inverted pyramid” and you’ll see the entrance with little or no line.
- OF COURSE you should see da Vinci’s La Gioconda, the Mona Lisa. Just be prepared for two things: it will take a significant chunk out of your time budget, and – frankly – she’s a bit underwhelming. Even with our quick entry, it STILL took an hour to get through the line to see her. She seems so small and unassuming, especially in her current temporary location in a hall of huge paintings. Plus, the surly security guards rushed us by with barely a chance to take a picture. We’re glad we saw her, but honestly, we’re glad she’s ticked off the list. (By the way, here’s an interesting article I came across about the existence of another Mona Lisa.)
- We made an unexpected discovery – a fantastic exhibit deep under the Sully section, where they’ve excavated some of the original Louvre castle walls and part of the dungeon dating back to medieval times. Fascinating.
4. Get high at sunset.
Hold on, that’s not what it sounds like! Twilight and into dusk is when the City of Lights is at its most magical, in our opinion. It’s the best time of day to experience the views from on high, which we were able to do from both the top deck of the Eiffel Tower with champagne (happy birthday, Susan!) and the dome of Sacré-Cœur Basilica on Montmartre hill. NOTE: The Eiffel Tower and Sacré-Cœur are NOT included in the Paris Pass. Your best bet for the Eiffel is to buy skip-the-line tickets in advance, here. Trust us, this will save you a TON of time. Sacré-Cœur is easy to see in late afternoon.
5. See Paris from the Seine
Viewing Paris landmarks from the Seine is not to be missed, and we had two opportunities. First, we took a late afternoon (that radiant LIGHT again!) boat tour aboard the Bateaux Parisiens, included in the Paris Pass. And for Susan’s big birthday, we celebrated with a sunset dinner cruise aboard Le Calife. This small-ish and lovely boat, originally launched in 1939, is oozing with atmosphere. It’s a cozy and romantic setting to enjoy an outstanding dinner and stunning nighttime views of the Eiffel Tower and other riverfront sights.
Day 2 Photo Highlights
6. Do a bicycle tour.
On Day Three of our four days in Paris, we joined up with Fat Tire Tours for a three-hour ride to take in key points of interest on both sides of the Seine. Our guide Chris was extremely knowledgeable and full of insider tips (like the secret Louvre entrance above). We were able to learn interesting tidbits about key landmarks such as the Military Academy and Les Invalides, and we covered a lot more ground than we could have on foot. We enjoyed this tour so much that we took another Fat Tire tour in Versailles.
7. Visit the Catacombs.
Formerly quarries that supplied much of the stone for medieval Paris, these vast underground tunnels house the mortal remains (think artfully arranged femurs and skulls) of something like six million people! The Catacombs are as creepy and fascinating as they sound, and not to be missed. One caveat: Be prepared to descend 131 circular steps and then climb another 112 to get back out – there’s no elevator.
Day 3 Photo Highlights
8. Don’t skip the Île de la Cité.
The Île de la Cité is probably best-known as the site of Notre Dame Cathedral, which is undergoing a massive restoration after the catastrophic fire in April 2019. When we were there, the Cathedral was still shrouded in scaffolding and looked terribly sad. It’s great to see that they’re making some real progress on the restoration now – here’s a story about it from last November.
Although we couldn’t get near Notre Dame, we did explore two more gems on the Île: Sainte Chapelle and the adjacent Palace of Justice. Small and accessible, the Sainte Chapelle is a stunning Gothic church that dates back almost EIGHT FREAKING CENTURIES, with stained glass that will take your breath away. The elaborate Palace of Justice also has medieval sections dating back many centuries and, until 2018, housed the Paris Law Courts.
After we toured the Sainte Chapelle, we wandered over to the Palace and went a little rogue, finding our way into some creepy abandoned courtrooms and offices that apparently haven’t been touched since the Law Courts people left, over a year ago! There’s also a museum (that we didn’t see) in the former prison where Marie Antoinette was held just before she lost her head on the guillotine.
If you’re visiting these two sites around lunchtime or just looking to have an Aperol spritz (Susan’s new favorite cocktail) and catch your breath, the Brasserie les Deux Palais is a great choice – it’s right across the street.
Day 4 Photo Highlights
What are we saving for next time?
- We LOOVE street markets, but just couldn’t fit them in on this trip. Here’s a great blog post from our friends at Twisper about how to navigate the universe of Parisian markets. This will definitely be our guide for the next trip!
- Touring Les Invalides, the sprawling military museum complex and chapel where Napoleon’s remains are (supposedly) interred.
- Touring the Palais Garnier – the Paris Opera House – and maybe seeing a show there.
- Spending at least a day really digging into the Louvre.
- Getting lost among Auguste Rodin’s iconic statuary at the Rodin Museum.
- Wandering the back streets of Montmartre.
- Notre Dame. We might be in a for a long wait on that one, but did see one recent story that they hope to have it back open to visitors by 2024.
- Uncovering more gems on the Île de la Cité.
A Few More Tips
- Location, location. Try to stay in as central a location as possible, preferably close to a Metro station. We loved our hotel, the Relais des Halles, located in the 1st Arrondissement. It’s about a 15-minute walk to the Louvre and other key sites. It’s also two blocks from the huge Châtelet – Les Halles transportation complex, where we fetched up after taking the train from Orly airport after our flight from Madrid.
- Warm up those walking shoes. To do all the things we list above with only four days in Paris means you will have to hoof it – a lot. And be ready to climb plenty of stairs. According to our fitness apps, we walked an average of seven miles every day!
- Use Metro. Taxis are super-expensive in Paris, but Metro goes just about everywhere (and you have unlimited access with your Paris Pass). It’s a great way to save time and give yourself a break from walking. Our favorite Metro station, Etienne Marcel, is on the super-useful 4 line and only a block from our hotel.
- Fave restaurants: Mobilis in Mobili (great seafood, especially shellfish), Robert et Louise (60-year-old hole in the wall with fantastic steaks), Le Cafe de Paris near the Arc de Triomphe, and the before-mentioned Brasserie les Deux Palais.
We crammed as much as we possibly could into our four days in Paris, and we got a real flavor for the city and a 10,000-foot overview of its incredible history. From Paris, we headed to Versailles for a few days before flying back to Madrid for a wonderful and fascinating week. Check out our posts Five Things We Loved About Versailles and Madrid for First-Time Visitors.
We’d love to know how other visitors have approached a short visit to Paris. What did you see, and what did you leave out? What can’t you wait to see, on your next trip? Let us know!
With Paris currently under its latest lockdown, there’s no way to know when or if will be possible to have this kind of experience there again. But our Paris memories from that first trip will never fade.
Wow! You guys crammed so much in! So glad you had such a great time for the special lady’s birthday 😊 As I got to the end I was thinking ‘What? But what about the Palace of Versailles?!’ So I cannot wait for your next article!
Gracias, mi amiga! We actually spent two days in Versailles, one of our favorite places on this whole trip. Working on that post as we speak 🙂
Excellent photos, guys. What a great way to celebrate a birthday!
Thank you, Jane! It was a birthday to remember, for sure 🙂
This newbie wants to go to Paris too. You’ve taken some amazingly awesome photos. Hope you had an epic time. LOL
Thank you so much!! It really was the trip of a lifetime. Seems like I say that every time we take a trip lately 🙂 Hope you can see Paris soon.
It’s so nice to read your account of Paris as we just arrived home from this great city a couple of days ago. We also had about 4 days (3 days at the front of our trip and one day at the end). I felt content with this time, but feel we really only scratched the surface. One of the things I love most about Paris is that it’s such a wonderful city to just wander around in, with incredible monuments everywhere and those big, impressive avenues and park spaces. We did a lot of what you guys did but instead of a bike tour, we went on a couple of terrific “free” Discover Walks Paris: one in the Montmartre area, the other in Le Marais. Our hotel was in the16th Arrondissement (just across from the Eiffel Tower) where we spent countless fun times on the Trocadero both admiring the views of the tower/city and the endless parade of people, including many wedding parties, posing for photos. I too would like to return when Notre Dame is back in action. Incredible city! Thanks for sharing your experience.
Ah, isn’t it a magical city? Sounds like you had a perfect experience. We totally agree about just wandering – we will do more of that next time, especially in Montmartre. We’re huge fans of “free” walking tours but did the bike thing in Paris this time. Thanks for your comment!
Ah, Paris! My favorite European city. You had a magical 4 days, and you planned well. You saw all the “major” places and more. I like your first tip of getting a Paris Pass. That helps so much with lines. Why waste valuable hours standing in a line when there’s SO much to explore?!
You said it – we had so little time and so much to see, so we needed to save time everywhere we could! Thanks for your comment 🙂
I am a huge believe in the hop on hop off first day. Great way to acclimate to a city. Public transport and two feet after that …
How wonderful that you were able to celebrate the big day at sunset river cruise with champagne and endless eye candy. Surprisingly, I have never seen Paris from the water …next time.
And I totally want to go to Montmartre …maybe we have a trip together to Paris in our future.
The images are just magnificent. Sorry to spam you with so many comments on them!
Can’t wait to hear about Madrid
Oh gosh, wouldn’t it be fun to go to Paris together? Or anywhere? We should think some more about that. And thank you, amiga, for all the image comments 🙂
Paris was on my bucketlist for this year, but it seems I will not be able to make it =/
I hope you can visit soon! It was magical as I’d ever dreamed 🙂
Your blogs typically convey a joyful experience (I guess you two are compatible travelers!)-and Paris did not disappoint! Bon Anniversaire Susan and bravo on the fabulous idea of Paris. I echo the wandering aspect (tho Tim thought I tried to kill him with the mileage!), awed by the Musee D’Orsay impressionists and ambling along the Viaduc des Artes. The latter is an elevated railway converted into a garden promenade with shops in the vaults underneath. It was newly opened when we were there, which means it is likely a mature garden by now!
Ah, we heard after the fact about the elevated railway garden! Def on our list when we get back to Paris. Thanks for your comment 🙂
Loved the pics and info on the catacombs. Have been to Paris many times but never done the Catacombs ….. it’s on the list for next time !
Thanks for visiting! The catacombs are worth a visit, for sure. Creepy as heck, and the history behind them is soooo interesting 🙂
The Catacombs, fascinating, I’ve been to one in Rome so would be interested to see it in Paris. I haven’t been there for a few years, loved my day trips there.
The Catacombs are definitely worth a visit! And not quite as “discovered” as other tourist sites in Paris. Thanks for your comment!
Such excellent tips! You just can’t see it all so having such a guide is very helpful.
Glad it’s helpful 🙂
Paris is magical! I have visited few times, but can never get enough of this city. You have certainly made the most of your time there. Beautiful photos and a great write up.
Thank you so much! Paris was soo magical. We can’t wait to get back there and really get off the beaten tourist path (now that we’ve done all that stuff). Next trip!
Stunning photos of one of the world’s great cities. I especially love the shots of the Sacré Coeur from the Eiffel Tower as well as the tower at night.
Thanks, Henry! Hope we can get back to Paris and the rest of Europe one day.
Enjoyed reading your post which shows as much enthusiasm for this beautiful city as we have. Paris is our favourite big city in the world and we try to visit at least once a year, unless the Black Death strikes or similar. First time I hear about that secret entrance to the Louvre. Will come in very handy during our next visit. Thank you.
Paris is magical and unforgettable. You’ve certainly packed a lot in four days. Beautiful photos and great write-up that take me back to Paris.
Thanks, Natalie! As they said in Casablanca, we’ll always have Paris 🙂